Thomas Yancey has never been charged with a sex crime, but last spring, a few months after being released from prison, he had to go to police headquarters on South Michigan to register as a sex offender. Yancey, who’s 52, insists he doesn’t belong on a list of sex offenders, though he’d understand if someone wanted him on a list of child murderers. In 1974, when he was 21, he and a 15-year-old accomplice killed a teenage acquaintance during a botched robbery.
Yancey’s parole officer couldn’t explain why anyone would want him to register as a sex offender, and when Yancey arrived at the station he protested. But the police said he had to fill out the form and have his picture taken. The form included a list of labels and the instruction to circle one: juvenile delinquent, sexual predator, sexually dangerous/violent, or sex offender. The officer who’d given Yancey the form circled “sexual predator.”
The form is now on file at the station, and the photo is on the state’s online sex-offender registry, which can be accessed by anyone. Private citizens and potential employers can search for convicted men and women by name, city, or zip code. Yancey’s page, which says “Illinois Sex Offender” twice near the top, has not only his photo but his name, address, and physical characteristics. It notes that his victim was under 18, and at the bottom states that his crime was “murder with intent to kill or injure.” But because of the sex-offender heading, most people looking at the information would probably assume he’d also been found guilty of some sex crime that simply isn’t listed.
Reintegrating into society after serving time for murder is hard enough, says Yancey. Being on the sex-offender registry makes it even harder. “It makes the red flags pop up,” he says. “People who want to help you, they see that and they say, ‘Man, I want to help you, but I don’t know, because I don’t know what the hell you’re going to do.’ To be placed on a sex-offender list, it’s like I’ve got another sentence.”
Yancey grew up in the Washington Park housing project near 41st and Lake Park, the sixth child among ten brothers and sisters. He started running with the Blackstone Rangers when he was 15, and he dropped out of school in the tenth grade to look for work after his girlfriend got pregnant. He found a job with the Model Cities program acting as a liaison between the community and the police. “When I was 17 I ran into this friend,” he says. “He showed me how easy it was to stick people up. So I became interested in that.”
He kept his day job and robbed people at gunpoint in his spare time. After several months he was caught and spent two years in prison for armed robbery. His second son was born while he was behind bars.
Released when he was 20, Yancey moved in with his girlfriend and their children, then started going to a trade school to learn to be a machinist. He eventually landed a job grinding machine parts, but it didn’t keep him out of trouble. “I liked the job,” he says, “but the pull of the streets–” He pauses. “I don’t know. I just felt like if I wasn’t out I was missing out on something.”
He continued robbing people until October 12, 1974. “It just started like a bad day,” he says. “From the time I got up that morning until I went to sleep everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong.”
He and 15-year-old Nathaniel Brown Jr. decided to burglarize the apartment of a man who lived in Yancey’s building, David Wilkerson. “Me and [Wilkerson] used to stick up together,” he says. “But [Brown] wanted to rob him, and I said OK.”
Wilkerson’s son William, who according to police records was 17, walked in on them. Yancey says William told them he wasn’t going to let them just take the stuff. “I panicked,” he says. “[Brown] asked me what to do. I said, ‘Kill him.’ I said, ‘If we’re going to take his stuff we’ve got to kill him.'” Yancey says that they dragged Wilkerson to a laundry room on another floor of the building and shot him in the chest and that when he didn’t immediately die Brown shot him in the head.
While Yancey and Brown were trying to decide what to do with the body, two acquaintances walked into the room. Yancey says they joined the discussion about what to do with the body, and all four of them dropped Wilkerson’s body down an elevator shaft. “The reason we put him there was we wanted somebody to find him,” he says, adding that they considered dumping him in the subbasement of a nearby skating rink. “The others wanted to put him down there, but I didn’t. I knew his father and mother–I knew him. Something just told me not to put him there, because nobody would find him. It’s a bad feeling after that, after murder. I didn’t want them not to find him.” He says the elevator in the building broke down every day, so he knew someone would come to fix it and find the body, which is what happened.
Police questioned the two acquaintances, and they said Yancey and Brown had killed Wilkerson. Wilkerson’s father attended one of the preliminary hearings. “He wouldn’t look at us, and we were glad too,” Yancey says. “I was very relieved that he wouldn’t look.”
Yancey and Brown were tried together, and both pleaded not guilty. The trial lasted a week, and the jury deliberated for two hours before returning guilty verdicts. Yancey was sentenced to 75 to 90 years in prison. Brown got 50 to 90 years and is still in prison.
Yancey earned his GED soon after he arrived in prison in August 1975, but he says that for the first few years he hung out with the same gang members he’d known when he was on the outside. He says the prison staff taunted him, and he got into fights with them: “Some days they say something, and you can just say, ‘OK, right.’ But some days you can’t, and you have to say, ‘What did you say, man?’ I’d done it so many times I knew that I couldn’t stop. My mouth is going, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Why don’t you stop?’ But you don’t.”
He says it took a long time for him to comprehend what he was guilty of. “That doesn’t really set into your mind until you decide you want to do the right thing,” he says. “And then you just realize, you say to yourself, I was bad out there. And you think about all the things you’ve done that are wrong.”
He says acknowledging the pain he’d caused helped him learn to stay away from people who were trouble and break from the gang culture. “You look at yourself–you’re marching in a line, and you got someone stupider than you telling you what to do,” he says. “It just didn’t make sense to me anymore.”
In 1987 he earned an associate’s degree in general studies, and he started working again. “I got a job as a meat processor–a butcher–in the prison industry,” he says. “I made about, like, $200 to $250 a month, so that was like penitentiary rich. I worked there for about 11 years, and it gave me an opportunity to do things for others. I could send money to my kids, family.” He also began helping younger inmates adjust to prison life.
Yancey started to feel that he was finally doing things right, but he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to do them outside of prison. He’d been given a sentence with a range of years to be served and time off for good behavior. The law changed in 1978, and the amount of time people already in prison had to serve was then determined by the Prisoner Review Board, commonly referred to as the parole board.
According to Jorge Montes, the current chair of the board, prisoners periodically are brought before the board, and the board considers their crimes and their behavior in prison, then decides whether to deny or grant parole. Yancey went before the board for the first time in 1983. It denied him parole, as it would for the next 21 years.
Yancey’s family visited him regularly while he was in prison, and someone always came to his parole hearings–his mother, sister, nephew, or niece–and most of them stood up and told the board he should be paroled. In 2003, after his mother died, he was surprised to see his 86-year-old aunt at the hearing. She too spoke in favor of his parole. It was again denied, but she returned the next year. “She lied to her daughter and went on the train by herself,” Yancey says. “She didn’t want me to be there by myself.”
That hearing didn’t seem different from the others. He answered questions, and his aunt again said he deserved parole. Then he went back to his cell. A month later he got a notice that he was to be released. He’d been in prison for 29 years, most of his life, and when he read it he didn’t believe it. “I didn’t believe I was out until I walked out,” he says.
Yancey took the train home on November 12, 2004. “It was like a dream,” he says. “You’re on a train with people, and these people are nice, and they are talking to you. The conductor that runs the train told the five of us that were released, ‘You can do what you want to, talk to people. But don’t agitate nobody, don’t do anything wrong, or the police will be waiting for you.'”
He was headed for his sister’s. “I hadn’t seen her in maybe three or four years–she has lupus,” he says. “I hadn’t been home since 1975. I had a Stevie Wonder song in my mind–it’s called ‘Living Just Enough for the City.’ I’m looking up inside the train station, and I see people–I see my people, people I know, like my nephew, my niece, my sister, and another niece. But I mixed up some of their names.”
Later some relatives took him to see his old neighborhood, where the projects had been replaced by a mixed-income development. “The whole thing is different,” he says. “The building is gone, and the lot is empty.” The drug dealers were still out, but he says he was sure he wouldn’t slide back into their world: “Lifestyle, what I do, who I associate with. I’ve trained my mind. I don’t concentrate on wrong thinking. I don’t think about robbing anything, but I used to enjoy that. I’ve changed the way I think.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to adjust to being out. “The bathroom is like the size of a cell, so that’s where I was most comfortable,” he says. “That was strange.”
Yancey had been given three years of parole. He was put on a home monitor when he got to his sister’s house, though he could arrange with his parole officer to leave to look for work or go to church. He applied for jobs in the meat industry around the city, but no one hired him.
He was still looking for work in April 2005 when his parole officer called to tell him he had to register as a sex offender. Yancey said he’d never been accused of a sex crime, but his parole officer said he had to register, because failing to do so was a third-degree felony and he could be arrested. Sure that an arrest would get him in trouble with the parole board, Yancey went to the police station.
Montes, the board’s chair, says Yancey was right not to risk an arrest. “If they have broken the law and if they are convicted, they would face the parole board and would be reincarcerated–likely to stay for a really long time, until the board reconsiders,” he says. “The board is very conservative. Chances are, if they come back in it’s going to take them years to get out.”
The officer who circled “sexual predator” on Yancey’s registration form may have been confused. According to state law, child murderers who committed their crime after 1999 are automatically labeled sexual predators on the registry when they’re released, even if there was nothing sexual about their crimes. Those who committed their crime before 1999, like Yancey, are supposed to get only the sex-offender label.
Most people on the registry are on it for ten years, but sexual predators and child murderers are there for life. They all have to reregister at least once a year, for which they pay a fee, though the police are allowed to waive it for ex-cons who are indigent. “I told them I wasn’t going to pay this year, and they said, ‘This one’s on the house,'” Yancey says. “I said, ‘The rest of them better be on the house too, because I’m not going to pay for myself when I haven’t done anything.'”
Illinois set up its registry in 1986 so that the authorities could keep track of convicted sex offenders after they were released from prison. According to a 2003 state study, the original law, the Habitual Child Sex Offender Registration Act, required anyone convicted of a second sex crime against a minor to register, but in 1993 the law was changed so that first-time offenders had to register too.
In 1996 new legislation made the information on the registry, which had been strictly for the use of law enforcement, available to the public. The legislation also renamed the act the Sex Offender Registration Act and Child Sex Offender and Child Murderer Community Notification Act, and the registry was expanded to include crimes that involved children but weren’t necessarily sexual–kidnapping, unlawful restraint, first-degree murder. Only individuals convicted after the legislation passed were required to register.
Why state legislators added nonsexual crimes to the sex-offender registry instead of creating a separate registry isn’t clear. The legislation was part of a larger crime bill presented to the Illinois Senate by Republican Peter Fitzgerald, and the provision that put child murderers on the registry was the final amendment inserted in the bill before it was voted on. According to senate transcripts, no one debated the amendment, and no one voted against the bill containing it. The entire bill was presented to the House of Representatives by another Republican, Gwenn Klingler, from Sangamon County. Again, no one asked whether it was fair, and after a few routine questions about procedure it passed without opposition.
Senator John Cullerton, a Democratic member of the judiciary committee, which debated the bill before it went to the full Senate, says he spoke against some aspects of the bill and didn’t think a convincing case had been made for why the sex-offender registry should include nonsexual crimes. “We didn’t have enough information,” he says. “Nobody likes child murderers, but we don’t have registries for all murderers, so why have a registry just for this type of murderer? What’s the real definition of a child? Because in many people’s minds a 17-year-old is not a child. And is there a point where this should stop, because we want people to rehabilitate themselves and have a chance to get a job and not keep being recidivists?” But instead of voting against the final bill when it came up for a vote, he voted present. “It’s very difficult being a politician and being in a position where it looks like you’re trying to protect the rights of murderers,” he says. The bill was soon signed by Governor Jim Edgar.
More piecemeal changes to the registry followed. In 1997 all sex offenders, not just those who’d committed crimes against minors, were required to register, and in 1998 child abductors were added to the list. In 1999 the state risked losing federal grant money if it didn’t add sexual predators to a lifelong registry, so they too got lumped in. “Sexual predator” isn’t clearly defined in the law, which instead lists various offenses the term covers, among them child murder, exploitation of a child, possession of child pornography, and keeping a place of juvenile prostitution. By the end of that year all the information was up on a Web site (isp.state.il.us/sor/) overseen by the state police, where it was easily accessed by anyone who wanted to look. And people do look. A recent survey by the Management Association of Illinois shows that 38 to 47 percent of businesses do criminal background checks on potential employees, and agencies that do the checks say the sex-offender registry is one resource they can consult.
In early 2004 Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked legislators to close what she called loopholes in the act, by this time known simply as the Sex Offender Registration Act, and urged them to require all convicted child killers to register, not just those who’d been convicted after the 1996 law was passed. In a press release her office described the case of convicted child murderer David Maust, who’d killed three Indiana teens after he was released from an Illinois prison in 1999; because he’d been convicted before 1996 he hadn’t been required to register as a sex offender once he got out. That June the legislature passed without opposition a bill requiring all child murderers to be on the registry for life.
If Yancey had been released from prison before that last piece of legislation went into effect he wouldn’t have had to register at all. Unless the law changes, he’ll be labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Illinois senator Don Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park who serves as vice chairman of the judiciary committee, says the legislature didn’t make a mistake when it added nonsexual crimes to the sex-offender registry. “The general assembly, as a policy matter, decided several years ago that a handful of nonsex crimes, primarily crimes in which a child is a victim, warranted registration,” he says. “In the interest of making information available to the public about the people who most likely pose a danger to them and their families, it’s reasonable to ask child murderers to register.”
Asked if it’s fair that someone like Yancey has to register on a site that suggests he was convicted of a sexual offense when he wasn’t, Harmon says, “The registry fairly clearly describes the crime the particular individual was convicted of, and it does say child murderer.” And if Yancey’s attempts to reintegrate into society are made more difficult by the sex-offender label? “His reintegration problems are significant in and of themselves, and registering as a child murderer is likely a peripheral issue.”
Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the Illinois ACLU, thinks it’s not right for the state to offer information on the registry site that could be misleading. “We are concerned that there isn’t a kind of individualized review or decision made about people–whether they should go on the list, why they should go on the list, how long they should stay on these lists, etc,” he says. He also says there’s a danger that the list is being expanded to the point of meaninglessness. “It seems like our response to any individual horrific act is to add a list of people who are now to register without really thinking through whether or not that’s the thing that might really make us safe.”
Yohnka refers to a July 2005 Sun-Times story titled “He Grabbed Girl’s Arm–Now He’s a Sex Offender,” which describes a man who was driving and swerved to avoid hitting a 14-year-old girl who walked in front of his car. After he missed her, he got out of his car, grabbed her by the arm, and lectured her. She pulled away and reported the incident, and he was charged with attempted child kidnapping and unlawful restraint of a minor. He was convicted on the unlawful-restraint charge–and told he had to be on the sex-offender registry for ten years. The judge said he didn’t see the point of forcing the man to register but added, “I feel that I am constrained by the statute.” The appellate court noted that it might be unfair for the man “to suffer the stigmatization of being labeled a sex offender when his crime was not sexually motivated” but said actions like his were “often a precursor” to an abduction or molestation.
Cara Smith, director of policy for the attorney general’s office, points out that unlawful restraint of a minor was added to the list after defendants accused of sexual assault kept plea-bargaining their sentences down to unlawful restraint, apparently to avoid having their names added to the registry. She says the point of the registry is to protect victims and potential victims, not to punish offenders. “Anytime you pass a law there are going to be cases like the unlawful-restraint one that are on the perimeter of the primary issue,” she says. “But our law doesn’t give discretion to the sentencing court to say that the facts and circumstances don’t warrant registration.”
After hearing the details of Yancey’s case, Smith says that given the relatively small number of child murderers, it wouldn’t have made sense to start a new registry. According to the state police 17,297 people are now on the sex-offender registry, and 243 of them are there for child murder. However, in 2004 the legislature did approve a new, separate registry for arsonists.
Senator Harmon seems willing to at least consider whether the General Assembly should reexamine the existing law. “I’m certainly open to revisiting it,” he says, “especially if we find ourselves expanding the list of non-sex offenders that require registration.” He adds, “I think the state police are making the effort to more clearly differentiate between sex offenders and other heinous crimes.”
The state police did indeed make changes to the registry site in August, some of which seem intended to make a little clearer the distinction between child murderers and sex offenders. Now when you search for Yancey’s name a blue link identifies him as a “child murderer,” and if you click on the link you see a list of frequently asked questions about the sex-offender registry. But none of the questions or answers explains why a child murderer who didn’t commit a sex crime would be on a sex-offender list.
The Chicago Police Department has its own sex-offender registry, and if you enter the police beat Yancey lives in you can access a page labeled “Registered Sex Offender Profile” that has his picture, address, and other details. Nowhere does it mention that his crime was murder.
A month ago Yancey, who’s still living with his sister, gave up looking for a job and started a carpentry apprenticeship with a private contractor; he’s paid a $100 stipend each week for 40 hours of work, so he’s still depending on his family. He spends a lot of his spare time volunteering with a couple organizations that help ex-prisoners cope with life on the outside.
Many of his old friends are dealing drugs, and he’s well aware that he could easily make plenty of money doing the same thing. “You think about it for a second, but then the reality hits,” he says. “You risk too much. You risk your life and the lives of people around you.” In Illinois more than half of ex-cons wind up back in prison, but he insists he’s not going back.
He worries that he’s been marked by the police as a sexual predator. “I live in a high-crime area of the city,” he says. He believes officers in his neighborhood try to pin crimes they can’t solve on people they don’t like, and he knows no one likes sexual predators. He also worries about what his neighbors have heard and what they assume. He may be right to worry. In late August in Bellingham, Washington, two men who were on that state’s sex-offender registry were shot to death after being visited by someone claiming to be an FBI agent who said they were on an Internet sex-offender “hit list.”
“I can say anything I want to say, but I’m on this list,” Yancey says. “Law-abiding citizens, they obey the law. So they say, ‘If he’s on this list, there’s a reason for him to be on this list.'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.